The long spring: Unrest in the region has further underscored the importance of reform

 

The Arab Spring has certainly had an impact on the Kingdom of Jordan – demonstrators have taken to the streets of Amman and other urban centres on a fairly regular basis over the past year – but the nation has nevertheless proved to be more resilient than many others in the region. King Abdullah II, Jordan’s ruler since 1999, remains popular among the majority of the population.

He has reacted quickly to protestors’ demands by twice replacing the prime minister, by supporting political and economic reform packages aimed at reducing unemployment levels, and by promising democratic reforms in the coming years. Jordan is expected to preserve its reputation as a centre of stability and moderation in a tumultuous region for the foreseeable future, provided the government continues to respond quickly to changing circumstances.

A REGION IN FLUX: While the long-term effects of the Arab Spring remain unknowable, it is clear the protests that have swept through the Middle East over the past year have changed the region dramatically. The events of the Arab Spring were not completely unprecedented. Many of the countries where longstanding governments were overturned in 2011 have been home to well-organised dissident groups for years. The labour movement in Egypt, for example, carried out more than 3000 actions between 2004 and 2011, including workers’ strikes and other public demonstrations.

In the view of many, the Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian fruit vendor, set fire to himself after a government official harassed him and confiscated his wares. By the time Bouazizi died of his wounds a few weeks later, on January 4, he had become a national symbol of government oppression. After weeks of massive public protests on the streets of Tunis and other cities and towns around the country, Tunisia’s president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, stepped down after 23 years in power.

Inspired by the quick government overthrow in Tunisia, by late January 2011 demonstrators had taken to the streets in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Jordan, among others. By March 2012 protests had occurred or were ongoing in more than 15 countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and three long-established rulers had been removed, namely Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who had been in power since 1981; Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, in power since 1977; and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power since 1978.

UNREST AT HOME: In Jordan, protestors first took to the streets of Amman and a handful of other cities on January 14, 2011. In general, protests in the kingdom have been smaller and more peaceful than in most other countries in the region. Jordanian demonstrators want political reform, mainly focusing on economic issues, such as unemployment and inflation.

In the early days of the protests, demonstrators called for the resignation of Samir Rifai, the prime minister at the time, and for the implementation of sweeping economic reforms. The kingdom faced (and continues to face) a number of economic challenges, including high unemployment (estimated officially at around 14%), rising inflation (6.1% in December 2010) and a $2bn budget deficit in 2011. Around 13% of the population lives on less than JD680 ($956) per month, the official poverty line, according to government statistics, and the actual number is thought to be much higher.

According to a February 2011 poll conducted by the Centre for Strategic Studies, an Amman-based research institution, a majority of protestors felt that economic issues were by far the most important challenge facing the government. Some 33% of the poll’s 1193 respondents felt that increasing prices and the cost of living was the most important issue, while 25% cited unemployment and 19% named the economic situation in general. Just 1% of respondents cited political reform and democracy as the most important issue currently being faced by the government.

Immediately after the protests began in mid-January, the government introduced a series of pre-emptive measures, aimed at boosting purchasing power and income levels across the country. Within days of the first demonstrations on January 14, the prime minister announced a $550m stimulus package, which went toward raises for civil servants and subsidies for a wide variety of staple food and fuel products, including sugar, livestock, rice and cooking oil.

The package did not satisfy protestors, however, and by the end of January they were gathering in crowds of up to 5000 in downtown Amman. On February 1, 2011 King Abdullah II accepted Prime Minister Rifai’s resignation, along with the majority of the members of his cabinet, the Council of Ministers.

A SERIES OF REFORMS: Just over a week later, the monarch appointed Marouf Al Bakhit, a retired army general, as the new prime minister. King Abdullah II ordered Bakhit, who had previously served as prime minister from late 2005 though late 2007, to work towards implementing “real and quick reform”, with the goal of strengthening democracy. The new cabinet, which was sworn in on February 10, included a handful of leftist politicians and a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan, which has been critical of the government in the past and has played a central role in organising the ongoing protests.

The new government quickly announced a series of major political and legislative changes. Perhaps most importantly, the public gatherings law, which had previously banned demonstrations without permission from the government, was reformed to allow for the ongoing protests and increased freedom of expression. The new government has promised to take a look at the electoral law as well.

“The new provisional government will indeed prioritise political reforms,” Awni Bashir, the acting CEO of the Jordan Investment Board, told OBG. “Also, we are confident that in the coming year several proposed measures designed to improve the business and investment environment will be implemented as well.”

In mid-March 2011 King Abdullah II announced the formation of a 52-member National Dialogue Committee (NDC), made up of representatives from a diverse group of political parties, private sector and civil society organisations, and women’s and youth groups. The NDC was given three months to produce recommendations for transformative political reform in Jordan.

Meanwhile, protests continued. In March 2011, anti-reform supporters attacked a pro-reform tent encampment in central Amman, resulting in violent clashes. In a speech delivered in response to the violence, King Abdullah II called for unity and calm, and announced that in the future protestors would benefit from increased protection by security forces. Only 200 arrests were made throughout the protests and none of the detainees remain in jail for crimes related to the protests.

CHANGES UNDER WAY: In early June 2011 the NDC submitted a series of suggestions to Prime Minister Bakhit. The committee’s recommendations included setting up a committee of retired judges to oversee national elections (previously managed by the Ministry of the Interior), passing a new elections law, boosting female participation in government and passing legislation to make it easier to form political parties. In a televised speech delivered less than a week after the NDC’s recommendations, the monarch promised that the government would pass new election and political party laws, as recommended by the NDC. Among the reforms will be a change to the selection process for the prime minister and cabinet. These posts will in future be elected by the parliament, although a timeline for the change has yet to be announced.

In mid-October 2011, with protesters again calling for the prime minister to step down, due primarily to a lack of forward motion on promised reforms, King Abdullah II once again dismissed his government, sacking not only Bakhit but a number of ministers and other high-level officials as well. Awn Khasawneh, a judge at the International Criminal Court at The Hague since 2000, was named as the new prime minister. Khasawneh served for around six months before stepping down in late April 2012. A few days later, the monarch appointed a new cabinet, with Fayez Al Tarawneh in the top spot. Al Tarawneh, who previously held the role in the late 1990s, is the fourth prime minister in the past 18 months. He was prime minister for almost a year in 1998-99 and has held a variety of top posts, including minister of foreign affairs, chief of the Royal Hashemite Court and ambassador to the US.

THE CURRENT SITUATION: As of spring 2012 regular but peaceful protests had been taking place for over a year. According to the government, the promised legislative reforms are under way, though some segments of society remain sceptical. In a speech delivered in Amman in February 2012, King Abdullah II outlined the government’s objectives, including fair parliamentary elections and parliamentary procedure based on representative political parties. The government is also working to curb corruption. Omar Maani, the former mayor of Amman, was arrested on corruption charges in December 2011, followed by Mohammad Al Dahabi, the former chief of the intelligence service, in February 2012, showing that the state is taking these reforms seriously and being proactive in their implementation.

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The Report: Jordan 2012

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